'The price of loyalty: who's dividing the Jewish people and why'?
'The price of loyalty: who's dividing the Jewish people and why'?

“We love Israel; Israel doesn’t love us.”

These seven words spoken by Federation CEO Jerry Silverman at a meeting in Knesset in October as part of a Jewish Agency delegation reflected a struggle that is tearing apart Israeli-Diaspora relations.

Characterizing the clash as a rejection of liberal/Progressive Jews, however, rather than their demands, misrepresents what the conflict is about and shifts the blame to Israeli “intransigence.”

 The rift is not new and it is growing. Recently, some major American contributors and investors to Israel expressed their anger and frustration with Israeli policies regarding issues such as acceptance of non-Orthodox conversions and creating an egalitarian section of the Western Wall. “Pluralism” seems to be the buzz word for liberal/Progressive Jewish leaders, and a signal to attack.

Aware of the problem, the Israeli government and generous individuals have funded programs and projects – such as highly successful Birthright and MASA – ministries, and institutions to open dialogue and provide solutions. The Jewish Agency, led by Natan Sharansky, has tried to mediate. A separate space at a section of the Western Wall in an adjacent archeological area was built for non-Orthodox Jews who wish to pray in their own way and without gender barriers; it is barely used.    

The power struggle continues – to the detriment of Israel and the loyalties of some North American Jews.  

Since its origins, Israel has depended on the generosity and loyalty of North American Jews. That can no longer be taken for granted. Many liberal/Progressive Jews feel alienated from Israel and that feeling has trickled down to its younger generation. Coupled with this, non-Orthodox American Jewish society itself is breaking down: there is more assimilation and less identity with Judaism and affiliation with Jewish communal life.

Blaming Israel, however, is a convenient weapon to mask failures of the Jewish Establishment. Most non-Orthodox North American Jews have never been to Israel and don’t really care about having a separate space at the Western Wall. They reject the Orthodox definition of “Who is a Jew.”

Although some oppose Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria (“settlements”), they have no idea of what or where they are. There are more important concerns and other priorities at home. What matters to them is what happens in their own backyards, not what happens in Israel.

So, why all the fuss about symbols, status and where Jews in Israel live?

Liberal/Progressive NGOs such as New Israel Fund, Peace Now, Rabbis for Human Rights, Truah, and JStreet – which are associated with the Reform and Reconstructionist movements – have engaged in campaigns against Jews living in Judea and Samaria while promoting an Arab Palestinian agenda. Well-funded by EU governments and anti-Israel individuals and foundations and supported by the media, they join with anti-Israel groups to cast Israel and Israeli Jews as villains – which indirectly and sometimes directly aid BDS campaigns.

In October, the Alliance of Jewish Progressives at Princeton University prevented Deputy Foreign Minister Tzippy Hotovely from speaking at the campus Hillel; the Hillel director, Rabbi Julie Roth and her husband are associated with liberal/Progressive NGOs.

A few months ago, historian David Myers, a bitter foe of Israeli communities in “the territories” was appointed to head the prestigious Center for Jewish History in New York City. His first act was to host a program by the Jewish Voice for Peace; the anti-Israel program was subsequently cancelled.   

There is a profound ideological struggle that has not been addressed. Liberal/Progressive Jewish leaders have focused on symbols (like praying at the Western Wall) to advance their "pluralistic" agenda -- exacerbated by some extreme Haredi groups -- which turn Jews away from Israel. The result is a psychological BDS effect -- linked to the "peace movement" -- which is a form of brainwashing.

From one side Israel is hammered by the liberal Jewish Establishment; from the other side the "anti-occupation" folks -- Israeli and American academics and literati, former IDF generals, media, etc. Their goal is to redefine Zionism, detach North American Jews from Israel, and promote their agenda which,  in the name of protecting Israel, undermines Israeli nationalism, Zionism and its ethos.

Attempts to explain Israel’s position and provide antidotes often fail, therefore, because they do not confront the source of the problem: distortion, misinformation and confusion about the meaning and relevance of a Jewish state. Liberals and Progressives would like Israel to look more like North American communities, its suburbs, sports and shopping malls; Israelis seek to create a unique version of the Third Jewish Commonwealth, Hebrew-speaking, closely identified with traditional sources, and especially connected to Jewish history and The Land, Eretz Yisrael.  

Missing from this power struggle is the recognition of Israel’s centrality in Jewish life and to the future of the Jewish people. Although unintended, the pursuit of some liberal/Progressive agendas – such as supporting Obama’s deal with Iran and opposing the right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria -- endanger other Jews and jeopardize Israel’s survival.  

Eroding support for Israel brings us closer to the possibility that in future conflicts with its neighbors, the international community and even some Jews may not stand with Israel.     

Time and again Israeli officials have stated, ‘We are family. We love and accept our brothers and sisters, but we don’t have to accept everything that they do and demand. There are limits.’

The question, therefore, is not whether Israel should bow to the demands of liberal/Progressive Jews, but how to work together to strengthen Judaism, the Jewish people and Zionism. That is a holy task.  

The author is a PhD historian, writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.